Chennai: Every time the Indian players' name and jersey numbers wer announced during the Asian Champions Trophy 2023 at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium in Chennai, the crowd would go berserk. It was even louder when the turn came for jersey number 50 Karthi Selvam, the local hero. He was a crowd favourite, and his every move was cheered by the fans.
Once a hotbed for the sport, Chennai vanished from the Indian hockey map after 2008 when Hockey India was formed and Indian Hockey Federation was dismissed.
Chennai, home to Olympic medalists such as V Baskaran, Leslie Fernandez, VJ Peter, Ranganathan Francis and VJ Philipps, saw a lull when the sport took a back seat due to a lack of support from the national federation.
The last international tournament was played in Chennai in 2008 - a Test series between India and Belgium. The last multilateral event held in Chennai was in 2007.
How apt it was that Chennai's return to the hockey map coincides with a Tamil Nadu player playing for the national team for the first time in 13 years. Before Karthi, the last time there was a Tamil Nadu player in the national side was Gunasekar Malayalan in the 2009 Asia Cup.
The hero Tamil Nadu deserves
Coming from a humble background, Karthi first broke into the Indian national set-up in the junior team. He was soon promoted to the senior squad by India's then-coach Graham Reid for his attacking prowess.
Although he didn't play in the 2023 Hockey World Cup, Karthi, known for his sublime finishing touches, has become a regular feature in Craig Fulton's line-up at the Asian Champions Trophy.
Such is his popularity that after the match against Pakistan, he had to oblige the fans and signed their t-shirts, jerseys and caps, with the kids shouting 'Karthi Anna, Karthi Anna' from stands.
One of the boys, 9-year-old Robert, who plays hockey in school and idolises Karthi said with a wide smile, "I have watched Anna (Karthi) play in front of me now and he signed my cap also. I play as right out in school and want to play with him someday."
While Robert is still honing his skills in school, Ram, who plays for the SDAT hostel, also looks up to Karthi. "After he made his debut for the Indian team, we all celebrated. It is great to see someone from our state play with the best in the world," he said.
"Karthi is a superstar here. As a former hockey player, I couldn't make it big, but I love to see him playing in the national team," said Ashwin, a hockey fan who had made a long journey to see the local hero in action.
"I have seen the likes of VJ Phillips and Dhanraj Pillay play here in this stadium as a kid. Now, when I see hockey coming back and one of our boys in the lineups, it fills me with pride," added Ashwin, who has traveled all the way from Coimbatore to watch the tournament along with his wife and son.
Staying connected to roots
It is often said that a star can inspire an entire generation of youngsters to take up a sport and develop a culture.
Karthi is well aware of his responsibilities. "I know people here in Tamil Nadu love me and it has been very heartening for me. But I have to make sure that I don't lose myself in all this applause," he told The Bridge.
Karthi Selvam is from one of the first batches of the Sports Hostel of Excellence, Kovilpatti, which was formed in 2017 to bring about hockey talents from Tamil Nadu.
Hailing from Ariyalur district in Tamil Nadu, Karthi's journey from the days of financial hardships to the elite level of hockey makes it more inspiring for the kids to follow him.
"I know I come from a poor family and it is like one of the many stories in our team that is often discussed. If I wasn't playing hockey, I would have to do odd jobs to survive and that is what made me more determined to chase my goal of representing India," said Karthi.
When Karthi scored his first goal in the tournament against Japan as his parents watched from the stands, it would have been a moment of supreme happiness. How Karthi's career will unfold only time will tell, but for now, he is someone for the local boys to look up to.